This Friday night, the contemporary chamber ensemble Zephyr will present its final concert with its founder and artistic director Kendall Feeney. It will be, on one hand, a celebration of Feeney's dedication to modern music, and on the other, a tribute to the 12-year commitment that Spokane audiences have made to challenging art. It will also mark the end of an era, and a point at which music lovers in Spokane will need to take stock of the current artistic climate. There will likely be laughter and tears. It will be a time, in short, to go mad.
The act of putting on a single concert -- not to speak of 12 years' worth of concerts -- dedicated to modern music requires an enormous amount of concentration and passion. Those two virtues, which continue to drive Feeney, are rare enough in the arts anywhere in America. When they occur together, the effect can strikingly resemble insanity to the innocent bystander.
But even as she prepares for Friday's concert, "Zephyr Goes Mad," there's a serenity in Feeney's voice. "I'm taking a pause in my life as a musician," she says warmly, reflecting on her upcoming departure. "This is a pausing point for me. I can get really sentimental about it to the point of reflection. But basically this is a pause, and I'm going to step back and see what I want to do."
As level-headed as her commitment to listening to her inner voice sounds, however, those same voices in her head were what led Feeney to the creation of Zephyr in the first place. "Things sounded tired to me, and I was feeling like I wanted to be in a world of less-tired sounds," she explains of her state of mind 13 years ago. "And because I'm interested in other things than music, like literature and the visual arts, I was interested in creating something that wasn't as static as a traditional concert."
It was while attending a concert at which a contemporary piece of music had been performed that Feeney found herself talking with local businessman and arts patron Paul Sandifur. "We were both excited by the new piece," she recalls. "And we both wanted to hear more new music. Wouldn't it be nice to hear more music like what we had just heard? Who could do that? How could it be done? And so he helped me with the first concert, and he's sponsored concerts every year.
"With Paul helping me," Feeney continues, "it was sort of like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: 'Let's put on a show.' I got to choose the music. I got to choose the musicians. I got to think about what kind of music I could choose that would still have some links to what the audience knew, because I didn't want to lose them completely. I think that the programming aspect of it was what gave me the most joy."
In typical Feeney fashion, her final concert on Friday will feature some sounds that are familiar -- traditional even -- and some that are new. Kate Vita has been commissioned to design the concert's setting, and writing by Virginia Woolf and William Carlos Williams will be featured as well.
But the highlight of the evening will be Feeney's final performance with Zephyr: Peter Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs for a Mad King." Dazzlingly unique even in the context of modern music, "Eight Songs" features a vocalist performing texts that represent the tormented and delusional thoughts of King George III. Or maybe they don't. With writing that calls upon the singer to produce multiple sounds at once, imitate animals and interact with the musicians, Davies' work is a tour de force of theatrical classical music.
"One of the most exciting things about the piece is the way that it engages the audience," says John Duykers, who will be singing the virtuosic vocal part, which ranges wildly from Baroque arias to smoky blues and into unearthly sounds. "The music becomes much more powerful when it's combined with drama. And the drama is intensified by the music. And so it's a very exciting piece of music. It's really unlike anything else."
Feeney, who will be playing both piano and harpsichord for the piece, agrees. "There's nothing really like it. I love the element of theater it has. That's why so much other music-making doesn't work -- even if the music isn't overtly theatrical, the music and the audience aren't in conversation. There isn't enough tangible drama to engage the audience. And I want the audience to be passionate, because there is a lot of non-engagement going on in our world. I'd like nothing better than to provoke a response."
During the past 12 years, a response is precisely what Feeney has succeeded in generating in Spokane audiences. When contemporary ensembles in larger cities faltered -- if they existed at all -- Feeney continued to draw enthusiastic crowds. It was due as much, Feeney says, to the music as to the enthusiasm of local audiences, which is what she says she will miss.
"I will miss the actual gathering -- those three or four nights a year -- with the Zephyr audience. There's no question that I will miss that, and I will feel a loss of that. But while I hope that Zephyr created something special for everybody, I'm not convinced of that for myself. I don't want to keep putting on Zephyr concerts like I have for the last 12 years.
"I didn't really think I would be doing something like Zephyr," she says. "You get on a track. You're seven years old and you're practicing and suddenly you're 10 and you're playing solo recitals and you're 12 and doing competitions and studying with a hard-core teacher and then you go to music school and get your master's and you think you're going to teach in a college and your whole life is going to revolve around college work. And it just didn't work out that way for me, I think partly because Spokane is a place where there are possibilities."
And so even though she will no longer be dropping the surprise of contemporary music into the tracks of local concertgoers, Feeney is eager to discover what possibilities the future holds for her.
"The end of Zephyr is the beginning of something else. That can sound kind of trite, but it isn't. It's just like that phrase in my favorite movie, The Sound of Music, when the Mother Superior says, 'You know Maria, when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.' " Feeney pauses and bursts into cascades of laughter. "Makes me cry every time."